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Freedom: Coming to a Windows Box Near You
Matthew Newton keeps a watchful eye on Open Source and Free Software, and shows
that you don't need commercial apps to get the job done.
Freedom: Coming to a Windows Box Near You
Who said that Free Software is just for Linux users?
Matthew Newton, PC World
Friday, June 25, 2004
The four-year-old Dell that serves as my Linux test bed here at PC World HQ bit
the dust yesterday: The cause appears to be a catastrophic drive failure. That
means I can't test Linux software for this column, but it also gives me the
opportunity to switch gears a bit and make a point I've been meaning to get to
for a few months now: You don't have to run Linux to enjoy the benefits of Free
If you're a Microsoft Windows user and you're reading this column with Mozilla,
for instance, you know what I'm talking about. Mozilla is probably the
highest-profile Free application for Windows, but there are many more. I've
recently discovered a nifty way for Windows folks to explore the possibilities
of Free Softwa TheOpenCD.
Forget about stumbling around the Web looking for the greatest Free and Open
Source Windows software. Instead, download one ISO image of TheOpenCD, burn it
to disc, and you're off to the races. TheOpenCD (no typographical error--the
words are deliberately run together) sports installers for more than twenty
top-notch apps for Windows, all 100 percent Free. You peruse the CD's contents
via an on-screen directory that greets you with the sort of message you're
probably not used to seeing if you dwell solely in the land of commercial
This disc contains a compilation of high quality Open Source software for
Windows. It is intended as a first introduction to the rich world of Open
Source. Also included are relevant add-ons, documentation, and tutorials. Feel
free to use the programs on multiple computers and make copies for your
friends. This software is free!
Toto, I don't think we're in Redmond anymore.
Free for the Taking
So what-all is on TheOpenCD? For starters, there's the Windows version of
OpenOffice.org, the office suite whose open development is supported by Sun
Microsystems. A lot of people find the current version of OpenOffice.org to be
bloated and sluggish. If all you need is a word processor, TheOpenCD can hook
you up with AbiWord, a lightweight scribe's tool that is under very active
development and has a devoted fan base.
If graphics is your game, you're set: TheOpenCD sports two versions of The
GIMP, a powerful app that's similar to Adobe Photoshop. The rock-solid, but
ugly and unwieldy, The GIMP 1.x is TheOpenCD's default version; the recently
released (and still a bit rough around the edges) 2.0 version is also on the
The GIMP 2.0 features a far cleaner and friendlier interface than version 1.x,
and thus has a more manageable learning curve. This is not an application to
approach without some serious documentation, though. Luckily, TheOpenCD
contains an electronic version of "Grokking the GIMP," the best introduction to
the program I've seen. I sincerely hope a new version is in the works: The
current edition predates GIMP 2.0.
The most interesting (and perhaps the most useful) tool on TheOpenCD is
PDFCreator. Creating PDF files in Windows is no longer an expensive
proposition. PDFCreator works by installing a dummy printer definition on your
Windows box. Anytime you want to create a PDF, all you have to do is select
File, Print in whatever application you're in, select the PDFCreator dummy
printer, and watch the magic happen. PDFCreator has more options than you can
shake a stick at, and I have yet to see it generate a poor-quality PDF.
TheOpenCD also includes a sophisticated audio editor; a Zip file extractor; an
FTP client; some mind-blowing screen savers; a couple of simple-yet-addictive
games; and Windows Privacy Tools, a front-end to the GNU Privacy Guard
encryption system. If you're looking to lock up your files or send encrypted
e-mail, Windows Privacy Tools is all you need.
Being Open, Running Free
I was recently asked why I tend to use the term "Free Software" even when I'm
referring to software that defines itself as "Open Source"--as some of the apps
on TheOpenCD do. What's the difference between Free and Open anyhow?
When I use the term "Free Software" or talk about software that is Free (with a
capital F), I'm not necessarily talking about something that is cost-free. When
you buy a boxed Linux distribution, for instance, you're paying money for Free
Software. If you're a Linspire/Lindows user and you subscribe to the
Click-N-Run warehouse, you're paying for the privilege of downloading Free
Software. (Quite foolish, in my opinion; but you're, uh, free to do so.)
The Free Software Foundation suggests you think of "Free" as in "Free Speech,"
not "free" as in "free beer." That gets us part of the way there; the official
Free Software Definition gets into some simple and useful specifics. Under that
definition, "Free" means four very specific things:
You can run the program anytime and anywhere you like, for any purpose. In
other words, Free Software never carries a restriction like "You may only use
this software in a noncommercial setting."
You can access and modify the source code. Most of us (myself included) don't
have the skills to do this, but we can always hire a geek--many will work for
caffeine--to do the work for us if we've discovered an app that's missing a key
feature. Try doing that with, say, Microsoft Word.
You can copy and redistribute the software without restriction. Yep, that means
you can charge people for it if you like.
If you (or your hired hacker) modify the program and make those modifications
public, the new version must also be Free.
Now, if you're a freedom-lovin' geek like me, this all sounds really good. But
if you're Big Business, the very concept of embracing something that is "Free"
is scary. The types of folks who write business plans and marketing strategies
can't stand the F-word.
Some biz-savvy geeks realized this several years back, and decided to start
pushing Free Software in the business realm by rechristening it "Open Source."
They trademarked the term so that it could not be abused, and explicitly
defined what it means. The Open Source Definition has roots in the Free
Software Definition, but it drops the final requirement and goes into far
greater detail on others. It's not enough simply to make the source available.
The upshot of all this: All Free Software is Open Source, and most Open Source
software is Free. If you can allow just a wee bit of wiggle room (sloppiness,
some say), the terms are pretty much interchangeable.
Why, then, do I prefer to talk about "Free Software" instead of "Open Source"?
Two reasons: First, most end users don't care if they can get at the source or
not, so the term "Open Source" holds little value for them. Second, the term
"Free Software" works to remind us that what is at stake is freedom in the
digital realm--freedom from restrictive license agreements, freedom from
lock-in, freedom from the forced upgrade treadmill, freedom from closed file
formats that can maroon your own creative works, freedom from a convicted
monopoly telling you what you can and cannot do with your PC. I think these
things are worth talking about, and one way to keep such ideas flowing is to
use a term that reminds us up front what the real issue is. In the end, it
really is all about freedom.
Lastly, a Few Linux Bits
There have been several interesting developments in Penguin Land since my last
First up is Xandros's introduction of an Open Circulation Edition of its Linux
distribution. Unlike other Xandros offerings, the Open Circulation Edition is
freely downloadable. But there is nothing Free (or Open) about it: You can use
it in noncommercial settings only; the default browser is the ad-supported
version of Opera; and the CD burning features built into the Xandros File
Manager are severely crippled. Go ahead and give this a try if you like. But
what's the point when you can download unrestricted, un-ad-laden, uncrippled
copies of Mandrake or Fedora Core?
Speaking of Mandrake, we can look forward to the return of Mandrake boxes to
store shelves here in the United States--the company has inked a distribution
deal with book publisher O'Reilly.
I've gotten some e-mail lately chastising me for badmouthing Mandrake in recent
columns without providing specifics. I never meant to indicate I'd entirely
lost faith in the distribution: I've just grown sick of certain bugs that never
seem to get fixed, as well as the broken English in many of Mandrake's
configuration tools. But I remain a Mandrake fan overall. I tried putting
Fedora Core 2 on my Thinkpad, and it was nothing but a string of disasters.
Mandrake 10.0 installed without a hitch and is running beautifully, especially
since I've used a third-party package repository to install Gnome 2.6, which
y'all are certainly tired of hearing me praise.
Next month I'll try to leave the ideology behind and focus squarely on Linux
once again. The Linux for Grandma project will probably be approaching
completion by then, so I'll likely have some new stuff to report on that front.
Till then, be as Free as you can.
Matthew Newton is a self-described "writer-editor-tinkerer-geek" who would love
to hear from you.
"Any idiot can survive a crisis; day-to-day living is what kills you." --
"If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased." --
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